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Why I Don’t Pray to Saints

Pseudo-Polymath wants to know, “If you do not pray to saints, why not?” He summarizes some of the reasons those who pray to saints do so. Most centrally (if I’m reading him correctly), one prays to saints to ask them to pray to God for us. Those who accept the practice often compare it to asking for a trusted Christian friend or advisor’s prayers.

He also suggests the following additional reasons to pray to saints:

  • To keep alive the memory of one who proved by his or her life to be a holy person.
  • To honor the image of God revealed in that person.
  • To express hope that God’s image would be similarly manifested in oneself.

He concludes: “Is my [praying to saints] adiaphora or not for you!? If so, let’s talk about it.”

In fact, if this is an adequate summary of Ps-P’s practice, I have no objections to it. As I have written previously, I object to the wording of some traditional prayers to the saints that seem to grant them power in their own right to effect benefits that, properly speaking, only God through Christ can confer. As for Mary, Paul, Francis of Assisi—or Thomas Helwys or Lottie Moon!—joining their prayers with mine for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, I don’t see the big deal with that that many Protestants do.

My concerns are not christological but eschatological. Here is how I expressed it some time ago:

If we believe it is right to ask other believers to pray for us, the questions we need to settle with respect to the saints have nothing to do with the centrality of Christ or his role as God’s uniquely appointed mediator between God and humanity. Rather, the pressing questions are eschatological in nature. Do the righteous dead know what is happening on earth? Is their entire attention focused on a heavenly vision of God, so that earthly concerns are completely beyond them? Or do they exist in some sort of “twilight zone” or “time warp” in which there are no conscious thoughts at all between their death and eventual resurrection?

So, in answer to Ps-P’s question, first of all, I don’t pray to saints because I haven’t gotten my eschatology quite worked out. I suppose I probably should, but to be honest, systematic theology was never my strong suit. I’d much rather just read the Bible and believe in Jesus 🙂

Having said that, however, I should admit that I see no problem praying a litany of the saints such as this one of my composing. (I might even be persuaded to use the traditional refrain.) I don’t know if such a prayer does anything in terms of enlisting the intercessions of the saints, but it certainly makes me appreciative of how God has worked in the lives of these holy men and women and inspires me to try to be more like them.

Second, and this is at least as important as the first point, I don’t pray to saints because nobody ever taught me how. My family has been rural Appalachian Baptist for eight generations. It was never even on the radar in my spiritual upbringing to ask the departed saints for their intercessions, so it never occurs to me to consider the possibility. From my frame of reference, praying to saints is kind of like eating sashimi: it strikes me as very unusual thing to do. If you love it, more power to you. And if a knowledgeable friend would lead me along—and the place checks out with the health inspector!—I would probably give it a shot.

So, here is a question in reply for Pseudo-Polymath (and anyone else who wants to chime in): What advice would you give an open-minded Protestant about baby steps into the practice of praying with the saints?

technorati tags: communion of saints, devotion to saints, eschatology, intercession


8 Comments

  1. Mark Olson says:

    Dr P,
    At Chrismation the Orthodox choose (or have chosen for them if very young) a patron saint. Part of the relationship between a person and a patron saint is to learn about the life and read the writings of that particular saint to help us learn from their example. In weekday services (vespers and matins) a saint “of that day” is chosen and we hear about the lives and deeds of those heroes of the church who came before.

    On picking a Patron Saint, read the lives of those Saints from ages past. If one speaks to you, connects with you, has the same name, or otherwise inspires you then go with that. (The same name is there in part because the Orthodox Chrismate and Baptise at 40 days old. The name given the child is chosen as the same as the patron saint).

    During personal devotion the prayers to one’s saints that I’ve seen are simple and short for example:

    O saint of God, (the name of the saint), pray to God for me, for my home and my family. Amen.

    Pray to God for me, O saint (the name of the saint), well-pleasing to God, for I readily recommend myself to you, who are the speedy helper and intercessor for my soul. Amen.

    I would think that it would then also be appropriate to ask the patron Saint to intercede just as you ask for your neighbors (in church) to pray for you (when you do) and as well for those for whom you are praying..

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  2. PS says:

    This topic interests me in that I know so little about it. blogger LP wrote about it recently. I didn’t know that one prayed to a saint for intercession; I thought it was for some power the saint might have.

    My son graduated from a St Mary’s college. At the graduation, the priest opened with a prayer to Mary ( not God at all.) I found that jarring, and like something was missing: asking God’s blessing. But the words had to do with the assumption that Mary was the patron saint of the college.

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  3. In the appendix to his Biography as Theology, the late, maverick Baptist theologian, James Wm. McClendon, Jr. rejects praying TO the saints, but accepts the idea of praying WITH the saints–which I take to be similar to the Orthodox practice. What say you?

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  4. D. P. says:

    Michael: I’ll let Mark weigh in on Orthodox practice if he chooses, but I think that is a distinction worth making. (I think I smell a blog post coming on…) For me, it still goes back to the eschatological question of whether the departed saints are aware of my specific prayers. I have no problem believing that they are, right now, praying something along the lines of “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” and I’m happy to join my prayers with theirs. But do they know about Aunt Tillie’s upcoming gall bladder surgery? And if so, how do I know that they know and share my concern?

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  5. The modern Anglophone cultures are all of them Protestant cultures, and our use of “prayer” is conditioned by that cultural environment. Note that prior to the Tudor period, and even for quite some time afterward, “I pray thee” would be addressed without qualms toward a human, with “pray” bearing the simple sense of “implore,” springing from post-classical Latin precare. Limitation of the semantic range to beseeching the Divine would be a completely modern thing.

    On the Orthodox side, asking the Saints to pray to God for you is considered a bit more useful than asking your family, because their competitions are over and they’ve each qualified for the victor’s wreath. We tend toward patron saints who were similar to us in their earthly lives, who fought the same battles and triumphed. Whether that’s physical handicap, or sins difficult to repent of, or oppression from enemies, we can find someone who has through submitting to God’s grace mastered the destructive passions that afflict us, who have become winners in Christ. We need such “professional” support. They are as much the Body of Christ as we are, and no more off-limits to seeking help from than my living fellow parishioners, my priests, or my bishops. The prayers of the successful are certainly helpful to those of us who may have trouble even praying at all!

    Sometimes the language does seem to give them salvific power, but this language is more in the way of showing absolute trust in their prayers being effective, and in the grace of God in His infinite mercy, than in any innate power of the Saints themselves. In regards to the Theotokos, in particular, many find it difficult when prayers thank her for saving the world. This is not through her own power, but through her freely submitting to God to become the mother of God the Son here on earth. In that way she brought us salvation, through the Incarnation which took part through her directly. It doesn’t make her magic goddess of the Christians, but the gateway to salvation, because she said, “Let it be with me as you have said.” I could go on.

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  6. […] And finally, we conclude our feast with a treat. Last month, Mark Olson asked those of us who do not pray to saints (as do Catholic and Orthdox Christians) to explain why not. Weekend Fisher responded with “Why Not Pray to Saints?” and I tried to explain “Why I Don’t Pray to Saints.” […]

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  7. […] Dr. Platypus explained Why I Don’t Pray to Saints. […]

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  8. Vera M says:

    Hello. I feel very sad that people in US know so little about lives of the saints. If they read even one biography of the Orthodox saint, they would not have any doubt that saints do hear us and know everything we need (or would like to ask God about it). Only God has the power to heal people, but saints will pray to HIm and HOly Mother of God on our behalf. Why Orthodox people pray to saints and not God HImself? Well, we do pray to God directly. There are, in fact, many prayers that are directed towards God. But, our tradition teachers that if we ask saint, there is a bigger chance our prayer will be heard, because they are closer to us then God. They were living here, on earth, once and they know our troubles and difficulties. Who are we that might think that God will hear us directly? Of course, we hope that He does, but let me tell you, for example, what one newly canonized saint (who was martyred in Russian monastery of Optina on Easter morning by a satan worshipper) used to say: “Do we even have the right to say God’s name?”. I know it is hard to understand for an American person who has been taught all his/her life to value self-esteem and to think that if you go to church on Sunday morning or say that you want to be saved by God – you automatically become Christian and go to heaven when you die. However, what distinguishes any person with this sort of thinking from any Orthodox saint (I am saying Orthodox because I have notices this character in Orthodox saints when reading the stories of their lives)is that Orthodox saint always thinks that he/she is a biggest sinner. This is called humility and this characteristic brings them close to God Himself because it was the quality that He possessed as well when he was a human. Just about this: Saint Seraphim of Sarov (one of the greatest saints of Orthodox Church) spent the whole year on the stone in the field praying “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me a sinner”. This saint never did anything bad to anyone. He lived in a forest, far away from people, in constant prayer and labor (he cultivated his own garden), he was so humble and loving that even bears came to his cabin and were eating from his hands. So, even wild beasts loved him! He prayed for thousands people who came to seek his help and prayers. And this saint called himseld a sinner!!!! If you still don’t understand, you might want to read his biography or even life story of Saint JOhn Maximovitch (saint of Shanghai and San Francisco – he is the most recent saint and he used to live in USA only in 20 century). Saints’s lives were great and God brought them into our lives so we can see God’s glory—-

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